Lee was drafted by the Magic in the 1st round of the 2008 draft (22nd overall) after a fantastic four year career at Western Kentucky. During his rookie season he played a supporting role on a Magic team that advanced to the NBA Finals against the Lakers, losing in five games.
Despite a solid rookie season (8.4 PPG in 25.2 MPG), Lee was shipped to New Jersey that summer in a deal that brought Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to Orlando.
After one season with the Nets he was again traded, this time to the Rockets in a four-team deal. Lee played two seasons in Houston, continuing to play solid yet unspectacular basketball through the duration of his rookie deal.
During the summer of 2012, Danny Ainge brought Lee to Boston in a sign-and-trade deal for the immortal trio of JuJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore and Sean Williams. Lee then inked a 4 year, $21.35 million deal with the Celtics. Year one in Boston was a clear disappointment as the 27-year-old struggled with his ever shifting role (starter, first guard off the bench, second guard off the bench, third guard off the bench, starter again and finally out of the rotation during the playoffs), averaging a career low 7.8 PPG for the Cs.
There is no doubt that Lee was jerked around last season. He started precisely half of his games played (39 of 78), and came off the bench the other half. There were games he had the most minutes played of any Celtics guard, and other games where he ranked 5th in that category.
All of the fluctuation clearly bothered Lee as he suffered through the least productive year of his now five-year career.
That's why it will be interesting to see what role Brad Stevens has designed for Lee as we get into training camp. With Rajon Rondo perhaps missing some time early on, does Stevens throw Lee back into the starting line-up for awhile, fully knowing that he will not be there for long? Or does he instill Lee as the top guard off the bench right from the get-go, starting someone else at PG (possibly Jordan Crawford?) while Rondo is out? When you stop to consider that Lee is in no way, shape, or form a point guard — it may make more sense to give the job to someone else and let Lee get comfortable coming off the bench.
2. What is Lee actually good at?
I don't want this to sound like Lee-bashing per say, as he is clearly a solid NBA player. But instead I want this to be an objective look at his NBA skills.
There are several ways that an NBA player can help their team: You can be a scorer, you can be a distributor, you can be a great rebounder, or you can be a good defender. Let's break down how Lee is in each of these categories, using a few numbers.
Scoring: For his career, Lee has averaged 9.5 PPG. Per-36 minutes he averages 12.9 PPG. A solid, but not overly impressive number. Looking at it from an efficiency standpoint, Lee is a career 44.4% shooter, knocking down 38.4% of his three pointers. That three-point number is definitely above average. After all, NBA players shoot 35.9% from deep..leaving Lee 2.5% above the median. Clearly, Lee is an above average shooter, but I would stop short of calling him elite. After all, 45 different NBA players shot 38.4% or better from deep last season.
Lee's efficiency is solid as he has averaged 0.95 points-per-play (ppp) since 2009 (via Synergy Sports), slightly better than the NBA average of 0.936. He is also consistent, never going below 0.94 ppp, or above 0.96 ppp.
So it appears that Lee is just a shade above league average when it comes to scoring the basketball.
Passing: Lee is not a ball distributor. At all.
In fact his career 9% assist percentage (number of assists a player makes divided by the total number of assists the team has while he's on the floor) ranks below every other guard on the roster. It is also lower than Gerald Wallace's assist % (11.5%), and comparable to Jeff Green's (8.2%).
Lee's inability to run an offense isn't a huge deal as long as he's playing SG. But it does make him less valuable than a true combo guard who can help run the offense while he's in the game. Overall, passing is not a strength of Lee's.
Rebounding: As a shooting guard, there is not a lot of pressure on Lee to rebound. With that in mind, this is probably the least important of the four areas we're talking about. However, Lee's rebounding numbers in general are weak.
He averages 3.7 rebounds per-36 minutes in his career and his 5.8% rebounding percentage is really low. Of the 11 players on the Celtics roster with NBA experience, only Avery Bradley has a lower rebounding percentage (4.9%).
Again, not the most essential of stats for a SG..but Lee is a below average rebounder. Even for a guard.
Defense: Last season, Lee and Bradley gained notoriety for their roles as the "pit bulls" of the Celtics. Pestering opposing guards as the Celts made their second half run. For Bradley, the nickname was well earned. He made 2nd team All-NBA defense, and allowed only 0.73 ppp according to Synergy. A number that ranked 16th among over 400 NBA players.
However, there is less evidence that Lee is truly a great defender. Or even a very good one. Going back to 2009-10, Lee has posted the following ppp numbers. Keep in mind that league average is around 0.85 ppp allowed on defense.
2009-10: 0.99 ppp (299th in the NBA) 2010-11: 0.88 ppp (188th) 2011-12: 0.88 ppp (262nd) 2012-13: 0.87 ppp (195th)
Let's give Lee the benefit of the doubt and say that 2009-10 was just a down year. Since then Lee has established that he is pretty consistently just below average defensively. He has allowed 0.87 or 0.88 ppp in each of the last three seasons, never rising above 188th in the NBA. Definitely not an awful number, so he's not a liability out there or anything, but it would be hard pressed for anyone to call him a good defender.
Bottom line: Lee is a good three-point shooter, and overall an efficient scorer. He's not great in those categories, but he's definitely above average. However, the numbers show that he's below average at just about everything else. His PER reflects that as well as Lee has a career 12.1 PER (NBA average is around 14.5).
Again this isn't me trying to point a finger at Lee and say he sucks. Just that he's not a game changer in any way. Which is an issue when you're paying someone over $5 million per season.
Which brings me to..
3. Will he ever be worth his contract?
If you can't tell by now, in my opinion he won't be. He's a decent back-up guard who is certainly good enough to be in most NBA teams rotations. However, he's being paid borderline starter money (there are 132 players making $5 million or more, and 150 starting spots), and he's clearly not good enough to be a starter.
If you are going to pay someone the kind of money Lee is making, he should either be above average at everything, or great at something. Lee is neither. The same goes for Brandon Bass, who inked a 3 year, $19.3 million deal right around the same time as Lee signed his deal (Although there is growing evidence that Bass has become an elite defender..which could allow him to be worth that deal). At the time, Ainge was trying to fortify the supporting cast to make one more run with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. So overpaying role players to ensure that the Celtics bench was stronger than it was in 2012 was a top priority. It made sense on paper, but because of Rondo's injury and sub-par performances from the likes of Bass and Lee, last year's team never took off. Now KG and Pierce are gone, but the overpaid role players are still here. That's why the best thing Ainge can do is see if a contender is interested in players like Lee and Bass. They are both overpaid, but are also both serviceable NBA players who do have value as supporting players on contenders (as we saw with Lee in '09 and Bass in '12).
Unfortunately, the Celtics will not be one of those contenders this season. Therefore it's unlikely that a guy without a single elite skill will ever be worth over $5 million per season.